Q. I have three kids, ages 6, 5 and 2 -1/2 years old. They're basically good kids, but there are many times when they won't listen, smart-mouth, hit each other and misbehave in general. Typical kid stuff, but their father and I would like to get them under control now, before they become out-of-control teenagers.
We would like to find a discipline/reward method that works. Spanking, time-outs, taking toys or video games away — nothing seems to faze them. My husband and I will be the first ones to admit that our main problem is that we are not consistent with them. Do you have any ideas for discipline and/or reward methods, or any ideas that will help us be more consistent?
A. Reward systems often don't help parents reach their goals for well-behaved children. Children usually lose interest in the reward before the desired behavior becomes habitual, and they return to their negative behavior pattern. It's time to try another approach.
Rather than tackling all three of your problems — hitting, smart mouths, and not listening — at once, start with one and focus on it alone. By doing so, you're more likely to succeed. Plus you'll establish consistency and then the next disciplinary problem will be easier to remedy.
The key to success with any disciplinary approach is setting clear expectations, outlining a suitable punishment for failing to meet those expectations, and following through with that punishment. This disciplinary approach really targets your 5- and 6-year-old children. The toddler will follow their lead as time goes by.
Let's start with the listening issue and getting the kids to comply with your directives. Take, for example, the issue of picking up their toys before bedtime. Tell your older children that their toys need to be put away properly by 8:00 p.m. each evening. You'll need to clean up with your kids for the first week so you can show them exactly what you expect. The job shouldn't be overwhelming. In fact, it's best if they have no more than three tasks to complete. Books on the shelf, video game apparatus tucked in the TV cabinet, and blocks, toy trucks or dolls in their designated containers.
Once the week of training is over, tell your kids that now they need to clean up on their own. You'll need to give them reminders, so at 7:45 each evening you'll announce, "It's time to put your toys away." You can coach them with words, prompting and reminding them how to proceed. And you'll need to tell them that any items left out at 8:00 will go in a box for a week and they won't have access to them.
Your matter-of-fact demeanor and tone of voice are key to the success of this plan. At 8:00 when you're putting leftover items in a box, repeat the rule: "Toys that aren't put away go in this box for a week." Keep up this procedure day after day. Within three days or at the most three weeks, your children will be tidying up in the evening. Thank them when they do but don't go overboard with praise. It's expected that children pick up after themselves.
Between telling your children what you expect and showing them how to meet your expectations, you're giving them every tool they need to comply. And you've given them a reasonable punishment and followed through with it.
It's important to ignore any whining or complaining, such as "It's not fair," and "What am I, a slave?" or "You're mean." Kids will say anything to get their way: You need to stick to your guns and show them that you are in charge and that they need to listen to you. Also, don't try to convince them that what you're asking is reasonable. It is reasonable for kids to tidy their belongings, so only explain your rationale once.
When your children are in the habit of listening to your directives, then you can move on to teaching them not to hit and to use respectful language. Again, you'll need to set clear expectations, outline your punishment and be consistent in following through.